They Might Be Giants
After a long run, an athlete is chewing the fat.
"Fifty-two-point-five miles," Matt Reilly reports from Portland. "Yeah, I finished the race. It took me eleven hours, and I seem to have run until my butt cheeks chafed. You want a quote? Here: Chicks dig guys who run ultra-marathons."
"How many other people did it?" I ask.
"Thirty-nine entered," he says, "but I don't know how many made it."
In fact, by the time Reilly crossed the finish line, it no longer existed. Officials had already removed all the paraphernalia that marked the end of Seattle's Falls to Gasworks Ultra-Marathon, and only Reilly's friends were there to note his triumph.
"But," he adds, "I did open my first beer before I crossed the line. A nice Foster's."
Before the race, he'd had a chance to check out the other ultra-marathoners, who looked "like real runners," he laughs. "Little tiny upper bodies. While we were waiting around, I saw this little woman runner staring at me from behind. I was wearing tights and a T-shirt, and she wasn't scoping me out, either. She was justEamazed."
At 5'10" and 230 pounds, Reilly can be an amazing sight--particularly at ultra-marathons, where his is by far the largest physique visible. "They weren't ready to accept that I would ever enter this race," he gloats. "They didn't even have a category for guys like me."
Most races divide contestants by sex, age and ability. But many also have categories for guys like Reilly, including the Portland Marathon, which he recently ran. The Clydesdale category is specifically reserved for big athletes, a recognized group--albeit one that's recognized with a slightly raised eyebrow.
Clydesdales have been around officially since the mid-Eighties, which makes them a relative newcomer to the world of organized sport. Though their dimensions change from race to race, the average parameters are: men over 200 pounds, women over 150.
"Talk about your training," I say.
"I ran some," Reilly replies. "Also, I drank a lot of beer."
"What's a lot?"
"I would recommend an average of one six-pack of good stout beer every day," he replies. "Also, you need to eat lots of red meat, pizza and raw oysters."
Matt Reilly is only thirty. It will take a lot of beer and a lot of years before he can rightly consider himself a champion Clydesdale. But if he really works at it, he could be another Dave Alexander.
Alexander, who calls himself "Little Fat Boy," is 51. Over the past thirteen years he has raced in 261 triathlons, as well as countless marathons, ultra-marathons and bike races. He is something of a celebrity in the world of endurance sports, and he often signs autographs before and after races--which he almost always finishes last.
This is what a reporter for the St. Croix Avis had to say about Alexander's 1988 performance in the Beauty and the Beast Triathlon: "The last contestant emerged from the water. Enter Dave Alexander, stage front, dripping wet, dripping fat. Dave Alexander is a petroleum products businessman from Phoenix, Arizona. He looks great for sixty. The problem is, he's only forty-two...He was the fat person's hero of the day. And he was consistent. He was last in the swim, last in the bike, and hours later, last in the run."
At the moment, the 250-pound Alexander is stuck behind a desk at the crude-oil terminal he owns and runs in Phoenix, reminiscing about races--and the reporters who covered them. The St. Croix Avis story is just one in a stack, although it may be the most memorable.
"My wife thought it was cruel, but I thought it was funny as hell," Alexander recalls. "Anyway, a lot has been written about me. I can send you a neat article from Independent Gasoline magazine. It should have some stuff not everybody knows."
And indeed it does. For example, it explains the ties between gasoline marketing and triathlons that "may seem distant to most." Alexander also sends along some stories written in Turkish and Croatian, which presumably tell the story of the large athlete and his foreign junkets in search of sweat.
He's already contemplating summer travel plans. "The thing is, I'm usually in Eastern Europe at that time," he says. "I just got a fax from these same Hungarians--they always want me at their race. Also, there's the Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon in San Francisco. Oh, it's intimidating! The terrible cross-current, the sharks. You could get washed out to sea."
Which only makes it more interesting to Alexander. "When I finish a tough race like that, I feel like King Kong," he says. Little Fat Boy has been charged by a sacred bull during a marathon in India and threatened by a tree limb containing a four-foot-long forest cobra during a run in Malaysia. That was after the pre-race meal with the sultan. "He asked me to have dinner with him at his summer palace," Alexander recalls. "He was real curious why a forty-something guy would come to Malaysia to do a race and not expect to win. Natch, I said, 'You betcha, Sultan.' He had a chef prepare this godawful meal full of spices. I could barely handle it."
But he did. Basically, Alexander can handle anything. Born in Southern California, the grandson of an "Oklahoma scalawag," he started his sales career at twelve, doing magic shows for Elks and Kiwanis clubs. By 1967, at the age of 22, he was considered "the best close-up card magician in the United States." That was also the year he fell in love with Marilyn, the woman he's now been married to for 29 years. Drawing on his Oklahoma oil roots, he talked his way into a job with a company called Southwest Grease and went on to a big-money career in "crude-oil gathering, jobberships, all of it," he says. He and his wife decided against children, preferring to concentrate on world travel and adventure.
All of that was just a warm-up exercise for Alexander's racing career, which began in the early Eighties. "I was thinking, 'You need to do something, Little Fat Boy,'" Alexander recalls. "I went to watch a friend in his first half-marathon, and I watched him have to run like hell to beat a man who was 76 years old. You see things like that, it makes you think. Then my friends talked me into running a 10K. They did it by questioning my masculinity and my parentage."
At the end of the race, Alexander got a free T-shirt. He liked it enough to go for another, at a short triathlon, "which I ran back with the blind people and cripples," he recalls. "All I did was pass people. Wow! Fun!"
During the next race's 9.3-mile running segment, though, he "learned what pain was," Alexander says. "I hadn't trained enough. It pissed me off."
So naturally, he went in search of even greater pain, setting his sights on the half-Ironman-length Fountain Mountain Triathlon and soliciting the help of elite race trainer Jim Glinn of Bakersfield, California.
"He said, 'Dave, you have no business doing that kind of race. You better lose fifty pounds or you'll die of a heart attack,'" Alexander recalls. "I said, 'I'll be out there anyway. You may as well train me.' So he did, and we got to be friends."
Actually, Glinn says, it goes deeper than that.
"He's a very big individual," Glinn says of Alexander. "He swims very well, he's good on the bike, and when he runs, he's incredibly slow. He'll never even win a Clydesdale division. But he's very gregarious and very inspirational to a lot of people. If he can finish one of these tough races, so could almost anyone."
During Alexander's rigorous training, which occupied the summer of 1983, Glinn noticed that the weight began to roll off his client. "Then he plateaued and got frustrated," Glinn remembers. That frustration was nothing new to Glinn, whose three physical-therapy clinics have handled hundreds of endurance athletes. But Alexander was the first client who made Glinn question whether losing weight was worth it.
"I'm kind of large myself," he explains. "I'd done the Ironman, hundred-mile endurance races and dozens of marathons. At peak training, I weighed 168 pounds. But I also went to college on an athletic scholarship as a discus thrower, at 250 pounds, 6'1". I realized my body does not like to be light. It likes to be about 210."
Furthermore, Glinn decided, he was sick of trying to get his clients to the "real intense leanness" they so desperately wanted. "I started thinking: These ultra-endurance athletes, instead of being frustrated and vomiting in little plastic bags, why don't they feel good and happy when they run a good race? I got so sick of seeing anorexia all day long, I almost wished we could go back to the Rubenesque model of the 1890s. That blond-headed lady who talks about 'Stop the Insanity'--I mean, she's a nut, but those three words of hers make sense."
Glinn began advising clients to pursue goals that were "athletic, not aesthetic," he says. "There has to be more to life than, quote, looking good. You can make a choice, as Dave Alexander has, to quit worrying about what you weigh and just function."
But while Glinn was coming around to this new way of thinking, Alexander continued to be tempted by the possibility of weight loss. Articles written about him in the Eighties report his weight as anywhere between 200 and 260--on a 5'8" frame--and several quote him as being firmly on his way to a reasonable body weight.
Alexander never got there. "And why should he?" Glinn asks. "Some of us were meant to be big. It's genetic. Dave's ancestors were probably sacking [champion triathlete] Scott Tinley's ancestors. This world has always been full of big guys. Back in the Viking era, there was a Norwegian guy known far and wide as Walking Rolf--and this because he was too big to ride a horse. He was still a great warrior."
And Alexander's lousy race times and large physique made him a legend. "I'm part of the sport," he says. "I'm dead last, doing the best I can. I was there in the early days, and I'm still there, and I'm recognized. I'm incredibly tough and strong. My heart is huge and it beats real slow."
His even lower metabolic rate, he says, is what keeps him fat--although experts tend to disagree. They might also take issue with Alexander's theories on women in triathlons.
"My wife, Marilyn, for instance," he says. "Sports make her legs bulk up. She likes thin, trim, feminine legs, and so do I. The fact of the matter is that I like women, and triathlon is not good for them. It ages them. If you're a woman and you care about being soft and feminine, you won't do it. It'll ruin your face."
"It doesn't ruin yours?" I ask.
"I goop on lots of sunscreen," he replies. "Also, I'm a man."
A man who, despite his size, does not sign up as a Clydesdale. "I disagree with that whole thing," Alexander says. "I mean, you can be guilty of not even trying to eat right if you get more attention for being fat. Some guy from Baltimore invented the Clydesdale thing, and that's all it is--attention for being fat."
Personally, I wouldn't mind a little positive attention for being fat, or big, or large, or whatever you want to call it. I am 5'8", and at the moment I weigh about 160. At 37, I have spent most of my adult life bouncing between big and way big. This used to be my central neurotic tragedy, but more and more, it is turning into no big deal. I like to move around outdoors, breathing hard and sweating. According to my latest calculations, 85 percent of the significant fun I have originates with my big, bad body.
For instance, I live in the mountains and run on mountain trails. One recent morning, while running, I had a vision of a brown bear careening slo-mo through Yellowstone on a National Geographic TV special. Bears are big, but they sure can move. Everyone knows a gazelle is built better for running, and yet you wouldn't want that bear chasing you, would you?
The Colorado Division of Wildlife allocates 100 square miles for each of our state's brown bears. Any less than that and you end up with "nuisance" bears, which eat garbage and start fights. I relate to this implicitly. If I am prevented from crashing through the underbrush, I too eat garbage and snarl a lot.
That day, I sent off my application for the Evergreen Powerman Duathlon, on July 14, a race that consists of a 2.5-mile run, followed by a 56-mile road-bike ride, followed by another run of 13.2 miles. I entered in the Athena division--the female form of Clydesdales.
Joe Law, the guy from Baltimore who came up with the Clydesdale concept, shot himself in 1990, taking much of his story with him. But his brainchild was an, ahem, enormous development for athletes.
This much I know: Law worked for the government in the area of insurance, and it was his interest in actuarial statistics, his size--he was 6'4" and weighed 225--and his athleticism that led him to Clydesdales.
I wish I could find one of the rate tables Law designed that proved how much more effort it takes for a 210-pound man to run ten miles than, say, his 140-pound counterpart. I wish I could find a copy of his long-defunct Clydesdale Endurance Sports Magazine. (I do stumble across Clydesdale News and Clydesdale Stud Journal, but they both deal mostly with stallion sperm and real horses.) Finally, I reach the Long Island home of mortgage banker Dan Intemann, who is said to be the heir to Law's Clydesdale empire. According to his brother, Intemann is "a very busy, important man who has very little time for phone calls even on his cell phone. He is doing very well for himself."
Whatever Intemann is doing very well at, it is not the Clydesdale concept.
"He's let it fall apart, unfortunately," says Les Smith, director of the Portland Marathon and a supporter of big athletes since the mid-Eighties.
"That was before I ever heard of Joe," Smith points out, "and we didn't call them Clydesdales. We had a heavyweight division. That was because I'd been running for years with this huge guy, a big runner, a big man, and he used to point out, in a polite way, that bigger runners were running pretty well and that it wasn't easy. Then his son, God almighty, he was 6'5" and regularly qualified for the Boston Marathon."
Smith finally met Law when the Maryland man came to Oregon for a race directors' conference. "He was a regular guy who was big and looked great," Smith recalls. "He was proud because he used to be even bigger. He was nice and pleasant and enthusiastic, and from what I hear, he went out in a field and shot himself. Later, I heard he was just obsessed with his Clydesdale movement."
Obsessed is not the style of the Portland Marathon, which prides itself on being one of the more laid-back races in the country. There is no prize money, entrants have over ten hours in which to finish, and large runners can choose from ten categories in which to compete and win trophies. There's a Power Division, for big guys who can lift a large percentage of their own body weight, as well as several weight categories within the Clydesdale division. Big women have three divisions of their own: 145 to 155 pounds, 155 to 165 pounds, and 165 pounds and up. Still, fewer than ten women have ever entered the female Clydesdale division of the Portland Marathon--whereas there are always at least a hundred males.
"It's hard with women, a sort of double whammy," Smith says. "Of course, I only opened up the category at all because I didn't want to be sexist. And we don't call the women Clydesdales anymore, either. We got too many letters saying, 'Don't call me that.' Finally we came up with Bonniedale, as in Bonnie-and-Clydesdale."
"I call them Athenas," says Robert Vigorito, director of the Columbia Triathlon in Maryland. "I was always into Greek mythology, and she was the big goddess of something or other, so I suggested it to the USA Triathlon committee."
One of the reasons Vigorito landed on the Clydesdale committee was his proximity to Law, an enthusiastic participant in the Columbia Triathlon and a personal friend. "I was probably one of the last people to see him alive," Vigorito recalls. "It wasn't long after the Triathlon, he had had a great race, there was no sign of trauma or turmoil--but oh, man, he had his heart and soul in this Clydesdale thing. He always compared it to boxing: Would you put a 145-pound guy up against George Foreman just because both were professionally trained boxers? No, you would not.
"Law made this almost into a cult. He had seven, eight hundred members in his Clydesdale Running Club. He went around to races promoting his dream. It may have been too much," Vigorito concludes.
Had he lived, Law would have seen his dream come to life. Competition in Vigorito's Triathlon has intensified to the point that Clydesdale contestants must be weighed before the race in order to detect, and thus foil, thin wannabes. The Columbia Triathlon now serves as the Mid-Atlantic Regional Clydesdale Championship--and last year the Clydesdale category drew more than two hundred participants. In the men's division, that is.
"Women are still reluctant to enter this category," Vigorito adds. "They're reluctant to tell you their weight. Guys don't give a crap."
"Why do you think that is?" I ask.
"Well," Vigorito says, struggling for clarity, "a big guy is a big guy. A big woman--well, women carry more fat. It's notorious. A big woman isEwell, what?"
Despite their notorious fat, seven or eight women enter the Athena division of the Columbia Triathlon every year. The one who usually wins it, Vigorito says, "is a brick, a stone--just totally built, all 160 pounds of her."
The brick is actually Sue Altman, a former competitive swimmer who has just moved to Atlanta.
"Vig," she sighs. "I like him, but his real opinion is that for women, the Clydesdale division is a starter group that might give you incentive to lose weight. That's ridiculous. I'm 5'10" and 160 pounds. I'm built big-boned. I look like an athlete, but not like your classic real thin runner. I am never gonna be skinny, and to me that's under 150 pounds. One-fifty is light for me. Any lighter than that and I wouldn't have the energy to compete."
Though she went through a high school phase of "starving herself," the 33-year-old Altman has trouble being ashamed of her current weight and is disgusted by the small turnout in Athena categories.
"You have to put your weight on the Columbia Triathlon entry form," she says, "and one year Vig gave me a printout of all the women in the right weight range. I called 25 women across the country, trying to build interest, trying to get them to compete. But they didn't want to, and usually they said something like, 'I've been classified as big my whole life. I don't want to stick out anymore.'"
Parthenia Jones Potts thinks all athletes should stick out.
The 44-year-old Potts, a deputy marshal for the City of Aurora, has been a dedicated "heavyset runner" for twenty years. Six years ago she came up with the notion of starting a race series of her own, after completing the Bolder Boulder and noticing that "they only focus on people who win. I went the same distance," she recalls. "It just took me longer."
Potts holds four "Potts' Trotters" races every year, with the goal of recognizing every non-traditional runner in the pack. "I would give everyone an award when I had the money," she says. "I give out a caboose award to whoever finished last. The people who are seventy-some years old--I give them a bunch of awards. I give an award to whoever can answer my trivia question. And I knew the big women had no chance of winning in their age group, so I made them into a regular Clydesdale team, which is fun, fun, fun."
Instead of those T-shirts that Dave Alexander covets, Potts tries to give out "wonderful goodies"--which, in the past, have included coffee mugs, bouquets of flowers, tubes of deodorant and stained-glass ornaments. And sometimes she holds a very non-traditional race, at which contestants need only show up at the Aurora Police Department, run for as long as they like, and still receive a prize.
None of these hijinks masks the fact that Potts marks all entry fees for charity--always a good cause of a homegrown, immediate nature. "One of my friends had a double mastectomy, but the cancer is back and we need to pay some medical bills," she says of this year's June 22 race. "Basically, I raise money for people who are sick, when the big organizations can't do it fast enough. I try to make it fun, and it is."
For the past two years, women entering the Columbia Triathlon have been asked to check yes or no to the following question: If necessary, would you accept an Athena award?
Imagine. You win an award but refuse to accept it--not out of deep political conviction, but for fear someone will see the award on your mantelpiece and discover your (hidden?) fatness. For that matter, if you are going to go ahead and tell your weight to strangers, why not just be called a Clydesdale and be done with it? How does being labeled a Greek goddess or a gangster's girlfriend sweeten the deal?
It is all very female and neurotic, and I am feeling very tolerant and superior until I remember that, at this year's Mount Taylor Winter Quadrathlon in New Mexico, I could have competed in something called the Horsepower Contest but didn't. Why? Because competition means nothing to me and I did not covet the beautiful silver piston offered as an award? No, it was because my weight would be announced out loud, after which I would race for seven hours--an amount of time I did not want to spend listening to a nagging inner voice repeating: You're fat, you're fat, you're fat.
"But food has so much control over people," says Danelle Ballengee, a world-famous Colorado triathlete who should not have to worry about this at all. In winning the World's Toughest Triathlon for the second time, she had to bicycle fast enough to get away from a very real, and very interested, bear. But that did not scare her as much as the thought of five extra pounds.
"In running," she explains, "if I gain weight, I tend to be more prone to injuries, whereas I get stronger in my biking and swimming. One-fifteen to one-twenty is about right for me, and I struggle with it. I love to eat, and I love to eat junk, and controlling that is the hardest part of my training."
Ballengee qualified for the Olympic Marathon trials this year, has won the Mount Taylor Winter Quadrathlon and the Pikes Peak Marathon and works full time as a fitness trainer. This is her second year as director of the Evergreen Multi-Sport Festival, which includes five separate on-road and off-road duathlons and triathlons, including the one I entered.
Like any other race director in the country, Ballengee is familiar with the Clydesdale concept. "We had a great turnout last year," she says. "Road bikes and mountain bikes. It was very popular."
"What about Athenas?" I ask.
"Let me see," she says. "Oh. We had no Athenas. None. Not knowing what I was doing, I may have put the weight limit too high. I made it 165. This year it's 150."
"Do you have any Athenas yet for this year?"
"Hold on a second. Yes! We have two!"
Two? That's me and--Potts? I hope so. But when I call to ask, she says she won't be running the Evergreen duathlon. A half-marathon of 13.2 miles is her limit, she explains; she doesn't have time for more. Still, this could be the start of something big, and Potts welcomes the unknown Athena to our ranks.
"Because, you know, I am pretty large," she says, "and there is always someone yelling at me to run around the block a few more times, and sometimes it gets discouraging and I think about giving it up.
"But then," she adds, "I think: The hell with you. I can run a good fifteen, twenty miles when I feel like it. Can you?
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.